Sunday, December 6, 2015

Siem Reap - Angkor Wat, Beng Melea & Banteay Srei

We didn't exactly plan this about the trip, but it worked out well that we were still recovering from jet lag by our 3rd day in Cambodia because it meant we were still waking up easily enough to meet our driver at 5:30 a.m. to do sunrise at Angkor Wat along with all the rest of the tourists in Siem Reap.  Our pictures aren't great - the camera kept fogging over from the humidity, and that, in addition to the little available light made taking good photos tough.  It was pitch black when we left the resort and just barely starting to change to dark blue when we arrived at the temple site.  We followed one of the many groups marching by flashlight across a bridge over a moat and through an inky stone gate and once again felt totally transported to a different time and place.  While it didn't feel like ancient Cambodia, it definitely felt like being part of an expedition party in the late 1800 or early 1900's, exploring recently discovered ruins, just like Indiana Jones.  It smelled of damp stone, jungle vines and gathering heat.  The temple complex is big enough that even though there are tons of tourists there, you still have enough room to maneuver unless you are going for a really specific photo spot like one of the reflecting pools that were shoulder-to-shoulder packed with people who were serious about getting their perfect image arriving way earlier than us to stake a claim with a tripod.  

These next few images are blurry but I just love them for how ethereal they are.  Being there felt ethereal, so to me, they are a good depiction of the feeling I had experiencing the sunrise at Angkor.  I loved watching the girls take in their surroundings in a very different environment and time of day than what they are used to.  They danced and played and snacked on bananas and were pretty darn patient while we waited for the sun to come all the way up.

I turned back to snap a picture of one of the smaller structures that is between the gate and the main temple itself to show how it looked with the visitors hanging out watching the sunrise.

Then we headed into the main temple itself to explore for a bit before it got crowded.  The steep stairs and carvings were magnificent, especially in the golden morning light.  We saw a buddhist monk preparing some sort of ceremonial trinkets with red thread while incense burned and another monkey climbing around on the balustrades.  But mostly we just took things slow, observing and taking in the atmosphere.

After leaving Angkor around 7:30, we were dropped off at our hotel for breakfast before being picked up again to go to sacrament meeting at the Siem Reap branch of the church that met at 9;00 a.m.  Everybody took off their shoes outside the church building, which is only a couple years old and it was interesting attending church barefooted.  In all honesty, this was one of the hardest hours of our trip.  Church is hard enough at home with two little kids, but doing it in a foreign country and language where we had to wear headphones to hear a translation was really tough.  The girls were tired from being up early but didn't want to settle down and 4 or 5 little boys came to sit right in front of us and they spent the first half of the meeting trying to talk to Clara and Rose and egging Rose on when she started shouting "no!" at them by cackling and repeating "no! no! no!" to her.  It didn't seem like they had come with parents - my guess is that there are kids who come each week by themselves just because they think it is interesting or something, which is great, except when you are a visitor who doesn't speak the language and are obviously a curiosity to them.  Anyway, I'm glad we went because it was nice to have the experience of going to church and listening to the talks given by our Cambodian brothers and sisters (to the extent we could), but yeah, it was brutal.  Afterwards though we met a family of 4 from Logan (a mom, dad and two girls, just like us except their girls were a few years older) and had a few nice minutes visiting with them about their experiences in the country so far.

We had opted to do a couple of temples quite a bit farther out in the countryside for the day, which turned out to be perfect because the girls fell asleep almost immediately once we got in the car and had nice solid naps while we drove and talked with Mr. Loy, our driver, about the rice fields we saw, other crops that were being grown, and the little villages we passed by that were often just shacks with hammocks hung inside.  It felt like the real Cambodia, not just the touristed parts closer in to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat.

And Beng Melea, our destination, was so different from the temples we had visited the day before, which was nice because it kept things interesting rather than feeling like just another day of seeing the same things we had seen the day before.  Beng Melea was built before Angkor Wat and was a blueprint for the later temple.  But it hasn't been restored, so it is a good example of what Angkor would have looked like when it was first discovered.  The passages are filled with rubble and piles of rocks are strewn everywhere.  Vines hang down (which was fun for the girls because they could climb and swing on them) and trees grow amongst the ruins.  And there were hardly any other people around, which was lovely because it made it really peaceful and serene.

We had the most delicious lunch at a random restaurant near Beng Melea.  Khmer Red Curry (amazing - seriously, my favorite curry of the trip), crispy wonton chicken with some kind of dipping sauce, and pork fried rice.  I'm so glad I took a picture because this was my second favorite meal of the trip (my #1 favorite meal was lunch in Krabi on the private longtail boat we had hired for the day - more about that in a future post).  Thai and Cambodian foods have a lot in common, except Cambodians don't eat their food spicy like Thais do.  Turns out that even though I generally don't mind spicy foods, I prefer Cambodian food to Thai because I'm not distracted by the heat and feel like I can really enjoy the flavors more.  I have got to learn how to make all three of these dishes and wish I had been able to take a Khmer cooking class while we were there.  They were offered at our resort (and other places, I'm assuming), I just didn't plan it in not thinking beforehand that the food would be so different and that I would like it so much more.

After lunch we drove to our last temple of the day, Banteay Srei, often referred to as the Women's Temple.  It is beautiful and totally unique because it is made of pink sandstone and it's carvings are much more intricate than other temples and they are in excellent shape.  It is actually a much smaller temple than the others and doesn't take long to see, but definitely worth the drive out there both for the temple itself and the experience of seeing the countryside.

This isn't a great picture, but I wanted to document one of the animals we saw quite a few times while we were driving around the countryside - a water buffalo.  The people in Cambodia use water buffalo and oxen to do their farming and Mr. Loy said that water buffalo are preferred because they are stronger but they only work early in the morning until 9 or 10.  But once it gets hot he said that there is no way to get a water buffalo to work, whereas oxen will work all day long, even though they aren't as strong.  Interesting, right?

We were in Cambodia about 3 weeks ahead of their rice harvest (and just a few weeks after the end of their rainy season and into the start of their dry season), so the rice fields were a gorgeous yellow-green color.  Nobody was really working in them, which would have been interesting to watch, but they were beautiful as they were.

There was an afternoon storm so we hung out in our hotel room and on the balcony for a bit waiting for it to pass, then took a tuk-tuk into the Old Town where the tourist market is located.  We had driven past the market for locals earlier in the day and they are totally different places.  We all LOVED riding in the tuk-tuk.  You get a great experience of sound, smell, and lights riding around town in the open carriage behind a little motorbike.  The girls were wide-eyed and grinning the whole time.

One of our to-do activities for our trip was to find one of these fish pedicure place where tiny fish nibble the dead skin off your feet.  It took a few minutes for Clara to get up her courage to try it.  We didn't have to coax her into it or anything - she wanted too, she just had to take a bit to gather herself for it.  But once she got brave about it she was soooo thrilled.  She sat there for 30 minutes or so, giggling and letting the fish swarm her tootsies.  And the rest of the trip she would talk about wanting to find another fish pedicure place so she could do it again, which she did a couple of times when we stumbled across similar places in Thailand.  Paul and I tried it too, but to be honest, I hated it.  It freaked me out a lot and it was all I could do not to freak out and spoil it for Clara, lol.  We spent so long downtown that Rose got super sleepy and I ended up getting my own tuk-tuk to take Rose back to the hotel early and put her to bed (she fell asleep on the ride home) and Clara and Paul joined us an hour or so later.

And that was our experience in Cambodia!  It was WAY too short.  We absolutely loved the country and could have easily spent a full week there with lots more to see and do and explore, but we just didn't know what it would be like going there.  It was cheaper than Thailand (which is already an inexpensive country to visit once you pay for tickets to get there) and a much more authentic experience.  Thailand felt like Disneyland - prettified and developed for visitors - while Cambodia was much more rustic, although you can see that with the beautiful new airport and many new 5-star resorts being built that it is already changing and will be a different experience in not too many years.  We are so glad we added this leg to our itinerary.

But the next morning we had a flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand....

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